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Guatemala strongman trial hears litany of horrors

GUATEMALA CITY — Witnesses recounted a litany of horrors on Thursday in the trial of Guatemala's former U.S.-backed military strongman Efrain Rios Montt, and one soldier even accused the country's current president of ordering civil war atrocities decades ago as an army major.

Hugo Bernal, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade in the area where atrocities were carried out, told the court that Otto Perez Molina, now president, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during Guatemala's dirty war with leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.

"The soldiers coordinated the burning and looting, on orders from Major 'Tito Arias,' better known as Otto Perez Molina," Bernal told the court. Perez was elected president and assumed office on Jan. 14, 2012.

In line with the chilling and gruesome testimony that has marked the trial of former dictator Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Bernal told of what happened in one massacre in the early 1980s.

"The people who were to be executed arrived at the camp beaten, tortured, their tongues cut out, their fingernails pulled out," Bernal said.

The court also heard testimony from the victims of massacres and forensic experts. Some told the judges about the shelling of villages, beheadings and body parts kicked around like soccer balls.

Rios Montt is on trial along with his former head of intelligence in connection with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from March 23, 1982 to Aug. 8, 1983, during which he led a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency against leftist guerrillas.

"I saw them kill an old woman and officers cut off her head," said Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40, who witnessed one massacre as a child. "Those officers played with the old woman's head like it was a soccer ball."

He said he saw soldiers dig trenches with earth-movers, then send children to collect trash, which the troops threw onto the bodies, soaked in gasoline and set afire.

He also told the court he saw the Guatemalan army shelling villages full of civilians.

Velasco said his life was saved by a soldier who carried him away from a massacre even though a higher-ranking officer wanted to kill him.

A forensic expert, Mario David Garcia, said the bodies of pregnant women were found among the victims of massacres who were disinterred years later.

Rios Montt has remained almost completely silent during the years of proceedings against him, but his lawyers have said there is no clear evidence of his responsibility for the crimes committed by Guatemalan troops.